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4 April 2020updated 27 Jul 2021 12:39pm

The US’s week of strikes

Dismissed as low skilled and on the frontlines of a pandemic, workers in the US are discovering the power of collective industrial action.

By Emily Tamkin

This was the week of strikes in the United States.

Amazon workers of a Staten Island warehouse walked out this week; Amazon fired and reportedly tried to discredit Christopher Smalls, the warehouse worker who organised the walkout. (The company denies that Small’s role in organising the walkout was the reason his contract was terminated.) There was a work stoppage at Instacart, a grocery pick-up and delivery service, too. On Tuesday, employees at grocery chain Whole Foods, owned by Amazon, had a “sick out” strike after the company decided to stay open after employees at multiple stores tested positive for Covid-19.

It makes sense these workers would strike now. 

They are on the frontlines of this pandemic. It is not an overstatement to suggest that, in continuing to do their jobs, workers at grocery stores, for example, are keeping society from unravelling even further apart.

“So many educated Americans have gone to college, and they’ve taken economics classes, and in those classes people who do these really essential – transportation, healthcare, retail – jobs have been called unskilled,” says Ian Collin Greer, a senior research associate at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. “That’s still the convention in academia. It’s really affected the perceptions university-educated people have of working-class people.” 

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“Now that illusion is gone,” he says. 

For another, this pandemic has created a moment of disruption — and such moments have, historically, been the necessary conditions for change in US labour conditions.

“What this has in common with past times of mass mobilisation of American workers is that the routines of life are being disrupted,” says Greer.

“The obvious comparison is the Great Depression,” says Jefferson Cowie, professor of history at Vanderbilt University. The analogy is problematic in several ways; among other things, the 2020s are not the 1930s. Still, he says, in some regards it is useful. “The need for federal power at this moment to intervene on behalf of working people has probably not been this keenly felt since the 1930s,” he says.

The pandemic is also happening at a moment that working-class politics already appeared to be on the ascendant in America. The Democratic Socialists of America have arguably been reborn as a political force since the election of 2016; in that election, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont ran for the Democratic nomination. He was unsuccessful. His repeat attempt this cycle looks likely to be unsuccessful, too; still, his candidacies have reintroduced a set of arguments into mainstream American political discourse, and this crisis, some believe, proves that he was right. 

That healthcare should not be tied to employment becomes a newly urgent argument when almost ten million people file for unemployment benefits in two weeks; that workers deserve to make a living wage regardless of how much time they’ve spent in universities does too, says Greer. In the short term, he says, the fight to raise wages may be on hold; but “in the long run, I think this changes how people who are not in low wage occupations perceive people who are.”

But, perhaps paradoxically, it is also that short-term thinking that makes it more difficult for the strikes to be effective in achieving their ends. It is one thing to urge people not to cross digital picket lines and order from Instacart while shoppers are striking; it is another thing to tell millions of newly unemployed people not to take what work they can find. 

There’s also the reality that one of the main channels through which working conditions are thought to improve is unions – but according to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics, just 33.6 per cent of public sector workers and 6.2 per cent of private sector workers were in unions in 2019 – and conditions in the United States do not encourage the expansion of unions. 

For one, the service sector – as opposed to, say, the manufacturing sector – is already socially isolated. Add to that that Americans are, at the moment, engaging in physical distance. “‘Get away from everybody’ – that’s not a path to solidarity,” says Cowie.

For another, meaningfully expanding unions and union membership might mean changing labour laws. It was the Great Depression and mass unemployment and mobilisation, as Cowie notes, that brought about the National Labour Relations Act. And it was legal changes, per Greer, that led to the expansion of unions.

There are other groups that are doing work, Cowie notes. There are worker advocacy groups. There are immigrant rights groups. 

“They’re great, and they do good things, but it’s not a permanent reliable system of redistribution of wealth and power. I don’t read a single tea leaf here that suggests a rise in organised labour… It’s hard for me to imagine a major rejiggering that lasts for generations like the 30s and 40s did,” he says.

That isn’t to say changes won’t be made; Instacart, following the strike, said it will begin providing health and safety kits to its full-service shoppers. And that is the immediate concern. But this is the other paradox of pandemic worker relations: Because of the pandemic, it is the immediate issues, not the rejiggering of society, that are dealt with, even though it’s because of the pandemic that we see now, so clearly, that addressing those immediate issues are not and will not be enough. 

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